Commentary for the January 25, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” Matthew 18:2-5, NIV
For centuries, educated minds have pondered the question of nature versus nurture. Was a child born a blank slate which any life course may be written upon? Or did they come pre-programmed to achieve a pre-determined destiny? The former is exemplified in statements like, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Latching on to that perspective, totalitarian states have often exercised very close control over children’s upbringing and education, even to the extent at times of removing parents from the equation altogether. The Nazi Lebensborn program was based to some degree on these ideas.[i] Under this program, racially pure, Aryan individuals were encouraged to procreate with other Aryans and the children were then taken by the state and then directed through a process of education and eventually adoption by politically approved families. This process was monitored throughout by the S.S. under Heinrich Himmler, who apparently adopted a couple of the children himself. Many of these children were also kidnapped from foreign countries and subjected to a process of Germanization. Some estimates place the number of children seized in this way as upwards of a quarter million. Many of the children thus seized refused repatriation as they had become successfully programmed by the German re-education process.
Within Christianity, some feel there might be a similar process taking place within those denominations that operate parochial school systems. Citing the biblical passage that maintains if you raise a child a certain way, he will not depart from it when he is older,[ii] the denominations encourage voluntary participation in these parochial educational programs. This Tabula rasa approach to child rearing bears uncomfortable similarities to some aspects of the Lebensborn, where children may be indoctrinated into a system that discourages individuality and critical thinking in favor of the officially approved perspective on the world. Children, who tend to be more malleable than adults, may grow to adulthood without ever experiencing the dialectic that occurs when well-reasoned challenges to the prevailing paradigm are made. These challenges are simply not allowed, and those children who express them may simply be side-lined or expelled from the school if they persist. As may be seen through recent controversies at La Sierra University in California, this may be even happen to faculty as well.[iii] However, in all fairness, the termination of employment of faculty or the expulsion from school of the students has certainly not reached the level of the Lebensborn response to uncooperative participants. They were usually granted a one-way passage to an extermination camp.
When we consider that La Sierra University is a part of the Seventh-day Adventist parochial system, it seems contradictory to have such an approach when the denomination is so heavily influenced by the writings of Ellen White, whom many in the denomination herald as a prophetess, and whose writings many feel bear the distinction of being directly influenced by the Holy Spirit. She wrote, “Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”[iv]
Such a sentiment is admirable and would be a profound check on the tendency to reduce the Christian faith to little more than a thinly veiled attempt to indoctrinate children with politically acceptable propaganda intended to prevent any potential “boat rocking” down the road. The temptation to indoctrinate children with unquestioned acceptance of adult belief systems is powerful and needs such checks. The Seventh-day Adventist denomination is not alone in facing such temptation. There has been much controversy in the past as to whether Christians have been guilty of kidnapping Jewish children to raise as Christians much as the Nazis kidnapped the Lebensborn children. The case of Edgardo Mortara from the late 19th and early 20th century is an example.[v] Born to Jewish parents, he was surreptitiously baptized as a child by a Christian household servant, and the Catholic Church used that as a pretext to seize the child and raise him under the guidance of the Augustinians as a Catholic. Their efforts were so successful that he eventually became a priest and was used as weapon of the Vatican to evangelize Jews to Catholicism. As might be expected, the attempts of someone taught only to think in line with accepted Catholic dogma met with very little success in his attempts to convert Jews.
Perhaps this may be why Christian denominations meet with as little success as they do in proselytizing among the well-educated. They have an inadequate experience in critical thinking, relying instead on hackneyed phrases that might trigger recognizable responses among the indoctrinated, but tend to fall flat when offered up as supposedly profound statements to the educated. Examples might be “Fall on the Rock of Jesus,” or “I believe this because the Bible says so,” or “We’re in the end times.” Many educated individuals will simply see statements like these as preludes to absolutist dogma like “Turn or burn.” Since there is little room for critical thinking here, many will simply turn and walk away rather than become the target of one-sided lecturing that assumes the one being lectured is ignorant and needs to be “set straight” about God. They already know this usually means the issue is more about control than faith and that the one doing the lecturing is not so much interested in saving souls as in perpetuating their perception of God in others.
Interestingly, those who take such a “blank slate” approach toward others have a very hard time accepting the idea of nature as opposed to nurture. When some, as those in the LGBT community sometimes do, assert that they are what they are because God made them that way, they respond as though nurture is the only possible explanation for those who are different from them. That being the premise, their solution is to re-educate or de-program those whom they feel were incorrectly educated. Whether or not one’s sexual orientation is based on nature or nurture, the Christian church has much to answer for over what they have done to “correctively” reprogram individuals even to the present day.
We have distorted the image of God from one of loving grace to one of judgmental condemnation, and then we have imposed that image through education and controlled socialization on the innocence of children. Much as white supremacists have programmed their children to be dogmatically racist, we have too often programmed ours to be arrogantly and dogmatically Christians after our own distorted perceptions. When they critically confront those teachings, we too often retreat behind our walls of politically acceptable dogma and lament how they have become “lost to the church.” However, they cannot be lost to what they have never known. They may have never encountered the real “body of Christ.” They may have only known the organization that seeks to cast them in the mold of plastic uniformity where acquiescence to “do this” and “don’t do that” means success, and any challenge to those requirements, however well-reasoned, means failure and shunning.
Of course this does not mean that a child should simply be allowed to raise themselves. The more advantageous perspective for both the child and the church is to recognize that both nature and nurture are what create the well-rounded individual. But that nurture, rather than programming the child, should seek to expose to the child to every opportunity to think critically and engage the world around him or her in meaningful dialectic. The scientific method is a valuable tool for studying and understanding nature, both in us and in the world around us. How to construct a logical argument as a foil to dogmatism is also valuable. We might also consider as an adjunct to familiarity with the biblical narrative an understanding of alternative narratives and philosophies. Those who would argue against those who accept these alternatives as truth without knowledge of their perspectives are most likely only able to argue from ignorance and probably will receive the appropriate response to such a presentation.
A child has a hunger for knowledge of the world around them. Most parents can tell you that each child passes through a stage where their favorite question is “Why?” Perhaps enabling one another to continuously sustain that innocent inquisitiveness is the recipe to avoid the calcification of Christianity in the unbending matrix of dogmatic assertion.
[i] “The Nazi Party: The "Lebensborn" Program (1935 - 1945),” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/
[ii] Proverbs 22:6
[iii] “Educate Truth and Consequences: The Assault On La Sierra University Continues,” http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2009/09/10/
[iv] “Source and Aim of True Education,” Education, Ellen G White
[v] “Edgardo Mortara,” http://en.wikipedia.org/